There’s one thing you need to know about stand-up paddleboarding.
You’re going to fall.
Everyone, from beginners who don’t know which end of the paddle to stick in the water to the experts who recently raced across the Delaware Bay, has toppled off their boards.
Believe me, I know.
I decided to try it four years ago and headed over to Aqua Trails in Cape May. I rented a paddleboard, learned how to stand and paddle, and promptly spent the next hour climbing out of the Cape May Harbor. The next week, I went back and managed to stand up a little while longer.
Eventually, I got better and the tumbles became less frequent, save for an embarrassing mishap three years ago in which I was unable to turn fast enough to avoid a collision with the Schooner Restaurant at the Lobster House.
Here are some basics that may help you enjoy your maiden voyage. Perhaps you’ll even join the growing number of locals and visitors to the Jersey Shore who have made SUP part of their lives. Like me.
Don’t buy a paddleboard for at least a year until you decide whether standup paddleboarding is for you. Stick to renting one and try out different models to see which one fits best. Most places rent touring boards, which are wider than racing models and provide better stability and balance. Touring boards are generally around 32 inches wide and range from 9 feet, 6 inches to 11-6. Racing boards are narrower and longer. Most 12-6 models are 30 inches across while 14-foot boards are just 26 inches. As a general rule of thumb, kids are better suited to 9-6 boards, women seem to fare best on 10-6 and men on 11-6.
When it comes to paddles, most rentals feature adjustable shafts that can be made shorter or longer to fit you best. Stand on flat ground with the bottom of the blade touching. The top of the handle should be between eight and 10 inches above your head.
Make sure you have a Coast Guard-approved personal flotation device such as a life jacket with you at all times on the water. It is required. Having a leash strapped around your ankle is also a good idea to prevent the board from getting too far away in case you fall.
Getting ready to roll
Most paddleboards come equipped with a built-in handle on the standing side of the board. Lean the board on its edge, grab the handle and tuck the board under that arm for the trip to the water. Carry your paddle in the other hand.
When you get to the water, wait until you are about knee-deep before you set the board down to avoid scraping the fin on the bottom of the lake, harbor or bay. Stay away from the ocean for now. Stick to a body of water that is generally calmer.
To get on the board, lay the paddle across the board and climb on while placing your knees between the handle a little less than shoulder-width apart to get optimal stability. Grip the board with both hands on the rails (edges) to help with balance. When you feel comfortable, try paddling on your knees for a while.
When you want to try standing, place the paddle across the board and grab it with both hands. Stand up one foot at a time and place your feet where your knees were. You may want to have a friend or instructor standing in the water nearby to help keep the board in place for you.
Try not to go out by yourself, at least for the first few times you try it.
Having a few friends with you increases the fun factor and also helps with safety. Most of the rental companies offer group tours that can be a lot of fun and are less stressful. They are generally offered early in the morning or in the late afternoon. Some offer sunset tours that are low-key and feature spectacular scenery.
Getting a move on
When you’re standing, your feet should be parallel with the board about hip-distance apart. The wider the stance the better, but don’t stand on the rails. Keep your feet on the pads. Bend your knees slightly and keep your back straight. Try to look out beyond the front of the board rather than staring straight down.
To start paddling, turn the paddle so that the curved side of the blade is facing you. Place one hand on top of the handle and the other in the middle of the shaft. If your starting with the paddle on your right side, your left hand should be on top of the handle. Lean forward at the waist, dip the blade into the water and pull the paddle toward you. Keep your arms straight and pull with your core muscles. When the blade reaches your heels, lift it out of the water and repeat the stroke.
Take a few strokes on one side and then reverse your hand position and try paddling on the other side of the board. Assuming there isn’t much of a current, you should generally switch back and forth every five strokes or so in order to maintain a straight line.
Turn, turn, turn
If you have a lot of space to do it, simply keep paddling on one side until the nose of the board starts to turn. If you want to turn right, paddle on the left side of the board. If you want to turn left, paddle on the right.
For sharper turns, shift into reverse. If you want to turn left, paddle backwards on the left side. That will make the back of your board turn. After two or three backward strokes, quickly switch the paddle to the other side and use a normal stroke.
If you want to stop or slow down, stop paddling. There is no brake on a paddleboard.
If there are boats on the water, their wake will occasionally come toward you. If possible, turn your board to meet the swell head on. Stop paddling, bend your knees a little more and let the board float over it. When the water flattens out again, resume your journey.
The fall guy
If you lose your balance and feel yourself starting to fall, try to aim your landing spot to the side of the board so that you hit the water. Falling onto your board increases the risk of injury.
Don’t panic. Your PFD will keep you afloat. Your paddleboard also serves as a flotation device. Grab onto a rail with one or both hands and just hang out for a while to catch your breath and settle your nerves. When you’re ready, grab the opposite rail with your other hand, lift one leg onto the board and lift yourself back on.
If you let go of your paddle when you fall, make sure you get onto your paddleboard first, then go retrieve it.
If you are scared of falling, I’d suggest going out in relatively shallow, waist-high water, in order to reduce the fear factor.
I still fall occasionally, though I haven’t run into a restaurant in years.
All ashore that’s going ashore
When your SUP session is over, paddle back toward the shore and stop every so often to test the depth of the water until the blade is touching the bottom.
When you are about waist-deep, stop paddling. Drop to your knees one leg at a time while leaning the paddle back across the board for balance. When you are knee-deep, slide off the board and into the water. Gently guide it to shore to avoid doing damage to the fin. Flip the board onto its side, grip the handle and carry it out.
Then make plans for your next SUP trip.
Maybe I’ll join you.